**Last night, I participated in a gathering in which the subject of human mortality was raised. In response, I’m re-posting something I wrote for another of my blogs in May of 2014. If, as was ventured last night, our thoughts on death illustrate our attitude toward living, then here you have both, as I see them…
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
– Shel Silverstein
We’re all winding down the clock, working our way into Thomas’ “good night,” whether or not we rage in the process. And when the time comes that my plug needs pulling, I feel I should have the right to decide when and how it’s pulled.
This is a tough subject, a very loaded topic on which people tend to cultivate strong (and often stubborn) opinions, so I’ll try and tread carefully. It is also an issue which may fit awkwardly for some into the walkabout mentality, in which every day is an adventure, and every experience a treasure. So allow me to explain.
For me, the walkabout is about knowing my self, who I am both in the absence and the presence of others. It is about continual becoming. It is about, simply, being Me.
Every adventure along the way points toward one goal: the evolution of identity. As long as I am able to self-identify, that evolution goes on: each new day in the walkabout unveils a new piece, a new aspect, of who I am, who I can be. But there may come a time when all that is gone; sooner or later, the Vance-ness will begin to slip, I will begin to forget, either through age or infirmity, or both. The prospect of losing myself, of un-becoming, terrifies me–I cannot lie–unlike anything else. It is the ultimate threat, and it hangs over us all, sword to our Damocles.
The early Zen masters were renowned for their willingness to accede to the exigencies of mortality. Countless hagiographies end with the master “deciding to die,” meditating one last time, and then just going. This theme is meant to convey the true nature of Self-hood; as Seung Sahn taught, the original face has no life and no death, and the Dharma body does not disappear with the disappearance of the physical body. The Zen masters understood that their final breath was not the final movement in their symphony.
Interestingly, this is a key tenet, in one form or another, of most world religions: death is not the end. And yet…we fight, so hard. We confuse persistence with existence and the heartbeat with the mind (and the soul). My heart is not Me; remove it, hook it up to a battery, run a current through it, and it’ll go right on pumping. Put it in someone else, and it will serve them just as well. I am more than that, more than a machine with interchangeable parts. I am Mind; I am soul (whatever that construct may represent). I am my relationships, my emotions, my thoughts, my actions. I am my memories. Take those things away, and I am not me. Not anymore.
I have watched one grandmother descend into extreme senescence, another into perceived obsolescence, and my paternal grandfather into such a desperate state of cancer-related physical degradation as to be almost unrecognizable. From my very core, my being screamed out at the injustice of it, and at the notion of one day being myself in their shoes. No one should have to suffer the half-life of outliving himself.
One day, I will reach the pavement’s end. One day, my walkabout will be all walked out, and it will be time to face the weeds beyond. I do not fear that day, because in my Mind I know that meaning and mortality are not as inextricably intertwined as we sometimes assume them to be. Whether we believe in heaven, reincarnation, or none of the above, our essence resides as much in others as it does in ourselves, and we will go on in their hearts, minds, and memories. Like the argon in the breath of Alexander the Great, lodged still in unsuspecting lungs around the globe, I will linger. No, I do not fear death.
What I fear is the misapprehension of life, the desperate confusion of husk with heart. I fear no longer being myself. I fear the day the walkabout ends, and I (or others) insist that it has not. I fear the prospect of clinging to something that no longer exists: my Self. For Vance is more than a pulse; more than artificially pumped oxygen. Vance is me, and when he goes, so do I.
To those I leave behind on that day, whoever they may be, I say:
Look into my eyes, and see what you can see.
See if it’s really me
in there. And if it’s not,
hard as it may be, say goodbye,
heave a sigh, have your cry,
then let me fly, for I am